Monkey King: Hero is Back delivers solid action and has fun and with its Journey to the West premise.
“According to legend, long ago there was a monkey king called Sun Wukong. Although he had great power he was also a great troublemaker.”
Sometimes I wonder how China and Hong Kong are able to keep coming out with movies based around Journey to the West. In just the last decade we’ve seen Jackie Chan’s Forbidden Kingdom, Stephen Chow’s Monkey King series, the 2014 Monkey Film films, and the weird, ugly puppet-CGI-hybrid Monkey King vs. Er Lang Shen. But then I think to how many Star Wars films we have coming out, or how many times we’ve seen Batman’s parents get shot and … well, let’s just say we’re all out of ideas.
So what’s this one about? Liuer is an orphaned child, found by an old monk, and is raised to beg for alms and read scriptures, which he is bored by. Inspired by the tales of Sun Wukong, the all-powerful Monkey King who was imprisoned within a mountains 500 years ago for disobeying the heavens, Liuer wishes to learn martial arts and go on adventures. His wish is granted when mountain trolls attack his small village, and after rescuing a little girl from their grasp, knows he has to flee the village.
He ends up in the mountains and unwittingly frees Sun Wukong from his prison. Wukong, however, is still stripped of most of his powers and learns he has to go on a journey to prove his worth, with Liuer, the little girl and pigman Zhu (or Pigsy, depending on your subtitles) along for the ride. Meanwhile, the great and powerful Troll Lord (is that what he is? It’s not made very clear) has a plan to … do something. With trolls. Now that I think about, I can’t remember what his plan is, but he needs to kidnap a bunch of kids for it.
What sets Monkey King: Hero is Back apart from the countless other similar movies (other than the general story) is its production value as a cartoon. I won’t lie; China isn’t exactly known for its slick-looking blockbuster animated films and I was afraid that this movie would also suffer from the same so0so visuals and choppy animation. Thankfully I was proven wrong, and rightly so as Monkey King showcases a real knack for set design and cinematography.
Supposedly this movie took eight years with the team constantly working on improvements and modifications to whatever technology and designs they had, and the effort is evident. While a good amount of the character design is hardly anything to write home about, at least nothing is particularly ugly and even some of the lazier designs (like the trolls, or the troll-turned-humans they meet midway) aren’t too bad to behold, with Wukong and the troll lord are both very nicely done.
Similarly, while a lot of the animation is excellent, there are a couple of moments – notably the oafish troll-man – that stand out as either over the top, or just generally bad. These are the times when the animators implement what would now be considered clichéd moments of comic timing, or generally overdo it on the goofy animation. When so much of it is realistic and done to look at least somewhat believable, the slapstick moments can be a bit much at times.
However, these are tiny quibbles in what is otherwise a really enjoyable animated film. The scope of the adventure is excellent, considering it’s a fairly short movie that has to spend time building the world it’s in, and the action sequences are mostly done with a deft hand. The final fight is impressive in its scale, as things get bigger and bigger, and the stakes ever higher. Director Tian Xiaopeng, for which this is his first and only IMDb credit, definitely knows what he’s doing here and it shows.
Maybe that’s what’s been missing from a lot of Chinese animated features; a real sense of expertise. The previous Monkey King CGI animated adaptation looked like something out of a PSX cutscene, and it was released around the time of Ratatouille. Monkey King: Hero is Back maybe doesn’t compete with the best of Hollywood visually, but it’s a damn sight better than I was afraid it might be and proves that Mainland China can produce a big blockbuster animated piece with good characters, design and action animation.
Verdict: Monkey King: Hero is Back is a fun action-adventure film that’s entertaining for the kids and has enough charm and visual appeal for grownups.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Violence: 3/10 – lots of it, but all animated, and sometimes slapstick
Monkey King: Kind of a dick
Children stolen: 14/15
White Dragon: Ex Machina
Dub: Terrible. I caught a few seconds of it. Yikes.
Monkey King: Hero Is Back (2015)
Also known as: 西游记之大圣归来
Director: Tian Xiaopeng
Writer: Tian Xiaopeng
Lei Zhang – Monkey King
Zijie Lin – Liuer
Wenlun Wu – Old Monk
Zirong Tong – Evil Lord
Jiurong Liu – Pig
Wu Di – Lady Troll
Liu Beizhen – Rock Guard
Zhao Qianjing – Liuer’s father
Zhou Shuai – Liuer’s mother
Yuan Lu – Male Troll
Bao Bao – Baby Girl